The future is fiction

Around the start of the 20th century, a number of French artists, including Jean-Marc Côté, depicted their visions of the future in the form of illustrated postcards. They imagined life in the year 2000, complete with flying cars, automated barbers, robotic vacuum cleaners, and schools where children were fed books through wired headsets. Both fantastical and prophetic, the illustrations were later acquired and popularized by Isaac Asimov, a writer whose own works of science fiction have had a profound impact on how we imagine the future.

Jean-Marc Côté illustration

Looking back at the history of the foresight profession and futures thinking in general, there are many visions that we can review and draw on, from the technologies foreseen by Philip K. Dick and Stanley Kubrick to the radical cities of Ebenezer Howard or the Archigram group.

Cities: Moving New York, 1964

Archigram drawing

Some of these predictions were remarkably accurate, while others were wide of the mark. Most, however, encouraged imagination and dialogue on what the future could and should look like, providing an effective stimulus for innovation and debate.

Speculative map published in Ebenezer Howard’s 1902 book ‘Garden Cities of To-Morrow’

Speculative map published in Ebenezer Howard’s 1902 book ‘Garden Cities of To-Morrow’

In 2013, Arup created its own vision of the future: It’s Alive depicted a high-rise building in the year 2050. The structure included features such as modular components assembled by robots, air-cleaning façades, and on-site food production.

The illustration was envisioned as a tool to allow people to explore, imagine, and discuss. It was not intended as a prediction, but rather as a vehicle to contextualize the big trends shaping the future of the built environment, from robotics to climate change, by considering their possible impact on the future design, operation, and lived experience of buildings.

‘It’s Alive’

‘It’s Alive’

Three years later, it’s interesting to review and analyze the impact our image has had and the conversations it’s enabled. The first point to note is the sheer volume of newspapers, magazines, blogs, and websites that have featured the image (and in some cases, parts of the associated report). Although difficult to track accurately, a rough estimate of media distribution suggests that It’s Alive was featured in more than 250 different places. These included a number of traditional newspapers, such as the Independent, the Times, and the Daily Mail; architecture magazines in Russia, Spain, China, and Italy; an engineering magazine for children in Canada; the British Airways in-flight magazine; and a whole range of online blogs and websites, including Ars Technica and Building Design.

So the image was certainly popular among media editors, but was it useful? And did it have any meaningful benefit?

Arup’s approach to foresight follows a core philosophy: we believe that change is constant, the future is fiction, and participation is what shapes our world. The It’s Alive illustration targeted the last of these principles.

To imagine the future is to inform it. And like many visions of the future, our illustration helped stimulate exactly this, providing an informed starting point that encouraged everyone from kids in Canada to architects in Russia to explore, discuss, and shape the future.

Three years on from It’s Alive, the team is working on a larger-scale illustration, this time of a future city. Like its predecessor, this imagined metropolis makes use of present-day signals of the future to underpin its content — in this case a living, integrated city. While it may not feature robotic barbers, Jean-Marc Côté might well recognize his flying machines and electric books in the drones and machine learning of this, our current imagined future.


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